How to ask for and take feedback on your book

A friend became discouraged and frustrated by feedback on his manuscript. And let’s admit it: accepting criticism is hard. Managing feedback is a common problem. How can you get helpful feedback without taking it personally?

The key, as with everything else in writing, is to prepare by choosing carefully who you ask for help and what you do with what they tell you.

The three reviewer dimensions

When you consider asking someone for feedback — or even after you receive it — consider the reviewer on three dimensions:

  • Trust. Is this someone who cares about you, or someone who doesn’t really know you?
  • Skill. Are they a skilled editor or just somebody who likes to read?
  • Match with the audience. Is this reviewer someone similar to the people you’re trying to reach, or not?

Obviously, the ideal reviewer is a trusted, skilled member of your target audience. But there’s still value in feedback from people who score high on only on or two of these dimensions — so long as you understand how to take it.

When the manuscript is in flux, get help only from trusted reviewers

It can be helpful to get feedback even if you’re insecure about the state of your book. If the idea seems unfocused, the structure jumbled, or the writing far from perfect, you need an expert to help you, not an amateur.

At this point in the review process, trust and skill matter more than audience match. A skilled editor can help you figure out what direction to go next. If the reviewer is someone you trust, even if they’re not a skilled editor, they may still be able to help you, by pointing out which parts seemed best and which were muddled.

But at this point, do not seek feedback from an untrusted reviewer, regardless of their level of skill or audience match. When you are feeling vulnerable, you need to hear from people who have your best interests as heart and can show a little sensitivity. What’s at risk is not just your self-esteem, but the possibility that discouraging feedback will deter you from the perseverance that’s required to keep you moving forward.

When the manuscript it solid, choose reviewers deliberately

When the whole manuscript has come together and you’re feeling pretty good about it, you can open things up to a more varied set of reviewers.

Your attitude here is key. You should be feeling like you are a knowledgeable expert on your topic and your book is an excellent contribution what readers need to know. Starting from that feeling of confidence, your attitude about feedback is less likely to destroy your enthusiasm for the book you are creating.

Now it’s time to choose who you ask for feedback. And it’s crucial that you don’t just hand them the manuscript, but give them detailed instructions on what you’re looking for.

  • Use trusted reviewers for support. You may not learn much from your friend’s review, but if she says “Wow, I really loved it,” that will help you accept less loving criticism from others. Tell your trusted reviewer “I feel like this is in good shape, but I’m insecure about x and y. Can you tell me if it’s any good?”
  • Use skilled reviewers for guidance. Skilled reviewers won’t just give you insights on what’s wrong, but also on how to fix it. They’ll also notice what’s right — and hearing that from a skilled reviewer can be even more reassuring than hearing it from a trusted friend. In general, it’s a good idea not to get feedback from more than one skilled editor at a time; you’ll be stuck choosing between two or more expert viewpoints on what to do. Tell your skilled reviewer “I’m looking for feedback on how to make this manuscript better and more effective, including problems with structure and writing.”
  • Use audience proxies as beta testers. If your book is for financial advisors or entrepreneurs or college students, you should definitely give a draft to a few and see what they think. The point is to see whether it’s really helpful to them. Tell them “This is designed to help people like you. If you read this book, which parts would you find useful, and what is missing that you would be looking for?”

How to take feedback

Accepting and benefiting from criticism is a learned skill. The more experience you have at turning feedback into fuel for improvement, the better you get at it. The key is to distinguish yourself from your words. Your words are just something you’re working on. You and the reviewer are collaborating to make those words better. So long as your ego is tied up what you write, this will be difficult. I don’t know how to teach this; it just seems to be something writers get good at after accepting feedback over a period of years. If you can’t eventually master this skill, you’ll be a miserable writer.

With this in mind, your attitude about what you hear from reviewers becomes, not “Did I write something good?”, but “What can I learn from this feedback, and how can I use it to make the manuscript better?”

Then treat the feedback you get from the three types of reviewers differently.

Use praise from trusted reviewers to boost your confidence. If they offer some suggestions, consider them carefully; they’re coming from someone who cares.

Use feedback from expert editors to identify specific flaws in the manuscript and strategies to fix them. A conversation here is helpful; you and the editor can discuss strategies to restructure or strengthen the manuscript. Expert editors will also point out writing flaws, such as repeated words, sentence fragments, or too much passive voice. Be grateful for that feedback and use it to root out weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

Use feedback from audience proxies to see what’s working and what’s not. The type of feedback here is crucial. If an audience proxy reader tells you to change the chapter titles or make the sentences longer, you may choose to ignore that advice — it’s not their area of expertise. But audience proxies will often give you valuable feedback you can’t get elsewhere, like “This terminology is unfamiliar” or “I need more detail on this process” or “This feels like something my boss would benefit from reading.” If you can use this feedback to get into the mindset of your audience members, you can figure out how to give them more of what they need.

Feedback from copy editors

The last editorial step is getting edits from a copy editor. You should not do this until the manuscript is close to perfect.

Copy editors give specific feedback on language and usage errors. They’ll also catch parts of the manuscript that are confusing, unclear, redundant, or contradictory.

Your attitude about this feedback should be gratitude that the copy editor will help you approach perfection. But remember, it’s still your manuscript. You can ignore the copy editor’s advice (“stet,” which means “let it stand”) if you have a good reason to keep the text the way you wrote it.

Feedback after the book is published

There will always be critics that throw stones at your book once it’s out there. Some are professional book reviewers, and others are random people writing reviews on Amazon.

Your attitude about these reviewers should be: “Screw them.”

You wrote a book. They’re just nattering about it after the fact.

After all, you’re the one who did all the research and gathered the useful feedback to create a work of value to the world. And that’s what matters, no matter what some ignoramus writes on the internet.

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